Read The Hite Report on Shere Hite Online
Authors: Shere Hite
Outside the house, there was no grass or trees since construction crews had dug them all up. When it rained, we were surrounded by heavy, deep mud. It was worse in winter, when the snow melted. It was
impossible to go out of the house without getting your feet muddy. I missed my grandparents’ neighbourhood where the houses had mostly been built in the late nineteenth century. They were large and spacious (three or four storeys, fifteen rooms or so), with sprawling, well-kept lawns and even tennis courts. Ours was the only small house. The new surroundings weren’t too pleasant, and most of the time, there was nobody home. My mother liked to go and see her friends for almost all of the day or even evenings. She didn’t worry or bother much with what went on at home. At first I slept on a hard army cot, then later when I had a room there were no curtains on the windows, no furnishings of any kind, just bare walls and a bed. I had to iron my own clothes for school (I was only nine), I made my own breakfast, lunch (to take to school) and often dinner. Then, when my brother was born, I made his formula, fed him, fed our dog – but I was much happier. Why?
I loved playing with my little brother, usually him sitting in his high chair, Tippy the black cocker spaniel on the floor, me feeding Tommy canned cling peaches, eating them myself too, and the ones that fell on the floor, Tippy ate. We used to laugh when they fell, because the sound ‘splat’ was so hilarious. It was fun.
I missed my little brother when my mother left. One day she suddenly announced to me, just before dinner-time and just before my stepfather arrived home, that she would divorce him. She said she didn’t love him enough, she had married him to make a home and family. But now she felt he wasn’t making much of a family. Nor was she, in truth.
When she went, she took my brother with her and I went back to live with my grandparents. I don’t know how this was decided – I was not asked to choose. I always remembered my brother with great tenderness. Later I was shocked to learn that he didn’t remember those high-chair days in the kitchen, or how we played. Not any of it, not at all.
One summer my mother had poison ivy all over her body, and was very sick. She would lie on a large double mattress in the centre of the living-room, only partially covered by a rumpled white cotton sheet. She had to have salve rubbed on her every hour, heavy salve, to soothe the itching and burning. She said she was in agony, as she lay there and writhed around in a languorous way for several days.
I never approached the bed too closely, I hung about the edge of the room. I knew I wasn’t supposed to rub the ointment on her body. Her new husband wouldn’t like it, and also, it was clear to me that her body was off-limits to me. I don’t know if she had breast-fed me. My mothering had been done by my grandmother: it was her body I felt was there for my comfort. My mother and I had separated, so to speak. I could look, but not touch.
Every morning I went to school, without fail, even though I often had to step into the mud to get there. (No one really seemed to care very much whether I went or not, but it was more interesting than staying home.) I knew that it was a terrible sin not to go to school, because my grandmother and grandfather had
taught me so. It was also a sin not to get there on time. I was used to walking to school for half an hour, since that’s how long it took from my grandparents’ house to my old school, and that’s how long it now took from this new house to the nearest school. But this walk was unfamiliar and unfriendly. No smiling faces waved at me as I passed, and none of my friends lived nearby.
I used to visit a girl who lived around the corner after school, whose father was a Seventh-day Adventist preacher, studying by correspondence course at night to become a lawyer. My friend couldn’t come to my house, since it was too far away. But it was hard to play at her house, since it was so small and already had five occupants, her mother and father (‘don’t disturb him, he’s studying, be very quiet’), her two brothers and her. In a four-room house, having a friend over is a luxury. Poverty does make friendship a luxury – despite romantic clichés about poor people.
After the time spent living with my mother, I was glad to be home. Only two things had really changed. Before I left, I had two best friends at Hall School: Jill and Becky.
At first, there was just Jill (or Jillikins, as her mother liked to call her) – she and I were friends. Jill had long light red hair, pale skin, blue eyes, and lovely delicate freckles all over her face, arms and legs. A real charmer. Her younger sister was sturdier and pudgy, compared to thin and willowy Jill. Judy asked questions like, ‘Mommy, when you have a pimple on your face, why
can’t you just shave it off?’ The day she asked that, we all laughed at her – Jill, her mother and I. Poor Judy, she was always the odd one out. And she felt it.
Behind Jill’s house there was also a vineyard, so large you could get lost in it. Her father owned a local construction company, and had built the house for the family. It was beautiful and up-to-date in every way. But I liked ours better. It was old-fashioned, more integral to the landscape, it seemed to nestle into the trees and curves of the land and be part of it.
Then, the year before I went away to live with my mother, a new girl, Becky, arrived at school. She had bright red hair (and freckles too), a short Cleopatra haircut with a strong even straight fringe on her forehead. She was so delightful. She became a friend of mine, and she, Jill and I would go places. Then, when I lived with my mother and went to another school, Becky and Jill became best friends. By the time I came back, a year and a half later, I was not so central and accepted anymore in the group. I missed our close threesome. But it was time to move on to Junior High School in another larger building.
The other thing that had changed was that, following thirty-five years of marriage, my grandparents decided to separate.
Why? I’ll never know, really. But I suppose, based on small clues, that they were not enjoying each other’s company. My grandmother probably didn’t like or resented many things about her marriage. After all, she
stayed home and did the dishes while her husband went to work and met people. He came home and probably didn’t go back out with her. They didn’t have a lot of money for going out anyway. The typical 1950s marriage situation, as women have so often described it.
I object to my grandparents’ marriage being seen as a failure. This attitude is so judgmental – almost as if people don’t let other people change their lives. Is it a kind of treason if, after being married thirty-five years, people decide to do something different? They had brought up their children, been solid citizens, their children were adults who had married or gone away to pursue their jobs. Didn’t my grandparents have the right to revolutionize their lives?
At my grandparents’ house, summer was a kind of paradise. The neighbours tended their lawns and flower beds carefully, so the yards were green and filled with flowers and birds of all colours. We mowed our lawn, too, including two very steep terraces. (It was murder to pull a heavy lawnmower up and down them – lawnmowers were not power driven in those days. Usually it was very hot at the time, and you had to rest frequently, or risk suffering heat stroke. I even worried that my grandmother, when she did it, would have a heart attack; her face would to get quite flushed and her breathing became rapid. But I couldn’t dissuade her, she was determined to ‘keep up with the neighbours’, as one would lose face if one had a shoddy lawn. I too did it but I hated it. She also liked the beauty of her yard, and planted flowers: purple iris with yellow throats came up every spring, just after the jonquils and daffodils, and
later many-coloured tulips. I wonder where she learned gardening. She planted them faithfully, every year, never missing, for pure love of flowers.
Two houses down was a house built in the 1890s, extravagantly landscaped by a woman who had moved to St Joseph at the turn of the century, opening a hat shop for women. What an exotic idea! She must have been interesting, to build and landscape such a beautiful house, and enjoy designing women’s hats! I wish I could have met her. She planted two imported magnolia trees in her front lawn, and every spring their fleshy pink and cream blossoms radiated up towards the blue of the heavens.
These were quite something for a small girl to look up and see. The image that has remained in my eyes is of the trees and their branches backed by sky as I looked up. It was lovely to see them that way, almost floating against the blue. Ravishingly, heartbreakingly beautiful.
In the back yard of our home, my grandmother planted a vegetable garden. I remember weeding it together with her, asking her questions about the things growing there. It seemed miraculous when you could just pull an onion out of the ground! Or a beet or a carrot! I was amazed.
When things got tough, my grandmother took in mending to make ends meet. I get nervous palpitations now, thinking of her sitting at that sewing machine. She hated it, I think. She used to sew in a small room that she had added on to the house. It had three windows, one on each side, looking out onto the large old trees and lawns. There, at her Singer sewing
machine, she looked out at the world, even though she was not able to have much contact with it – except through church and charity work, of which she did a lot. In the summer, she liked to sit there, when the leaves were green and the windows open. In winter, the room was colder. Our central heating never extended there, and the house became more of a fortress against the heavy snows outside. Once a day in winter, someone had to go outdoors, down to the basement through the door in the ground, to shovel the coal into the furnace, lest the fire go out.
I didn’t like it that she tied up our dog in the kitchen every night. This she did with a really short piece of rope, too short. He must have been uncomfortable. How could he move in his sleep? Why did he have to be tied? He was always good-natured about it. Later she was surprised and indignant when, after several years of patience with a two-foot long rope, one night he bit her.
Looking at a photo of her back on the cattle ranch where she was born, I think my grandmother originally thought that life would be more fun than it turned out to be for her. In that photo with her girlfriends, she was laughing and looked carefree. I never saw her like that. My grandmother, the original good girl. (She grew up in New Mexico, the only daughter with five brothers.) When I asked her what her mother had been like, she didn’t seem to know. Later my aunt told me that her mother had died early. Or, with six children on the frontier, perhaps her mother hardly had time to know any of them well. And then, my grandmother left to marry my grandfather when she was only about
eighteen years old. Grandma did not sound like she admired her mother very much, but instead, talked with glowing admiration of her father and one of her brothers, Mose, the ‘big man’. All the brothers were tall
She placed images of another man, Jesus, all over the house, usually on the cross. Strange how much she complained about Catholics, since our house looked more Catholic than most Catholics’ homes!
To go out, my grandmother always wore her hat and gloves, stockings and high heels, a dress (never a skirt and blouse), and masses of lightly scented dusting powder all over her body. At home, she would wear loose-fitting ‘house dresses’. She was completely dressed every day by seven in the morning, her hair braided and neatly atop her head. (My mother was just the opposite.) Her hats bloomed in every pastel colour, and always had veils. Black hats were for funerals. I remember she had felt hats in soft rose, ivory and dove grey. The rose one had a pale rose veil. All the hats had hat-pins, usually made of mother-of-pearl. I liked these outfits on her. They were very elegant.
Her main pleasure in life was going to church, where she taught Sunday-school for twenty-seven years. (I was in her classes, like everybody else.) Sunday-school meant being read or told stories from the Bible, then asked to play games with the other children. Sometimes we went on class picnics, and later, there were weekend retreats where I think we were supposed to develop innocent crushes on other religious children. I went to only two camping retreats; I found the ‘pious youth’ overly quiet and uninteresting. They were so scared of
doing something ‘wrong’, that they seemed blank, like sheets never slept on. The girls were mousier than the boys, so I tried to make friends with the boys, who at least played games. There was one boy named Harlan, who I think my grandmother envisaged as my sweetheart. His father was a preacher, and he was thinking of becoming one. I could never stop thinking that he had a very curious name, nor could I get him to continue games he started. He would always go off to meditate in the middle.
When I was very young, (so young I had no public hair), I remember looking down at my body and seeing (I thought) my strong and nicely shaped arms with their blonde hairs. All the hairs were going in one direction, as if swimming. They began nearer my body, my heart and stomach, the deepest part, and went outward like waves toward the distance, toward themselves. They were very symmetrical and glinted in the sunlight, a nice toasty warm golden colour. My skin in summer was a little darker, but not much; I didn’t get really dark, though later when I lived in Florida, I tried.
I liked those hairs because they looked so strong. And my arms looked strong too. I remember being proud of my body, and a little ashamed of people whose muscles were no longer strong, because of age. Even though ‘it wasn’t their fault’, I thought in some secret way that it was still their fault, for getting old. How could they let that happen to them?! And I dreaded the day it would happen to me. I was sure it never would. I
felt overjoyed whenever anyone would point out how young I was, that I had my whole life ahead of me. I liked it when someone envied me for any reason, since this had been so rare for me – though I felt mean and guilty for feeling superior when they would say, ‘Oh, but you are so young – and so lucky!’
Our bathroom had white porcelain tiles, with black and white linoleum on the floor. On one side of the small room was a white sink and white toilet, and on the other side, a white tub. My grandmother brushed her long hair there every night after her bath in long strokes ‘to make it shine’. It hung down her back, almost reaching her waist. During the daytime she wore it up – the ends braided and raised to the crown of her head, pinned in a circle there, the perfectly white sides forming a Victorian frame for her fair face.